If you spend all of your time navigating through Twitter beef and ghostwriting witch hunts you might miss some really great music from outside the rap bubble.
Earlier this week I found out that "non-hip-hop album of the year" wasn't going to be an official Best of the Booth Awards (coming soon) category. But at the same time I wanted to celebrate some of the best non-hip-hop of 2015.
So that's what I did, because I wanted to and I do what I want Nathan gave me the go ahead.
Truth be told, I've been having trouble picking my favorite non hop-hop album of the year, so rather than spend 1,500 words gushing about one project, I thought it would be more fun to gush over a few truly exceptional efforts and see if typing out the debate I've been having in my brain would help me come to a conclusion.
Plus, as a DJBooth reader, you're probably already familiar with every major rap album to drop this year, but I’m guessing you may have missed one of my selections. This way, you get a second chance at dopeness and what’s doper than that? These dope albums, that’s what.
Can I begin? Dope.
Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
You may not have checked out Sound & Color on purpose, but I can almost guarantee that you heard the title track at some point this year. Apple commercials, movie trailers, and even the ending of one of the year’s biggest television shows. The Alabama Shakes were everywhere. It was exciting to see the Brittany Howard-led rock band blow up, but not surprising because this album was a huge step forward for them. I was astounded at their growth. Their previous album, Boys & Girls, was all about Howard and, while she still engines each and every song with her poignant, passionate vocals, the instrumental backdrops are much more complex and cinematic. I would have loved another album like Boys & Girls, but the best artists are always working on taking things to the next level; Sound & Color shows that focus and in my opinion, solidifies Alabama Shakes as one of the best groups around. This album might be the favorite.
Suggested Reading: This Alabama Shakes Album "Sound & Color" Is Amazing, That Is All
Suggested Listening: “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Gimme All Your Love” and “Guess Who”
Gary Clark Jr. - The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
Before this album, Gary Clark Jr. was a blues artist and a blues artist only. I was content with watching him shred and listening to “When My Train Pulls In” over and over. I never expected anything different. I never expected Sonny Boy Slim to be so diverse. The album starts with that vintage, heavy blues sound with “The Healing” and “Grinder,” but it's the third song, “Star,” that sets the tone for the rest of the album. “Star” has the same guitar-driven instrumental formula, but Clark’s smooth, lighter vocals give it a more soulful, R&B-oriented sound. I had no idea he had that kind of range, but that range is what drives this album. Each song is a testament to not only his ability as a guitarist but as a vocalist. Now I see him in a completely different light. Simply put, The Adventures of Sonny Boy Slim is exceptional.
Suggested Reading:Gary Clark Jr.'s "Story Of Sonny Boy Slim" Album is Amazing, You Should Listen to It
Suggested Listening: “Grinder,” “Cold Blooded” and “Stay”
The Districts - A Flourish and a Spoil
Sometimes you have to seek out new music (reminder: that's why DJBooth exists), but I’m also a firm believer that music can also find you. The Districts’ A Flourish and a Spoil came out in February, but I didn’t hear it until October, when I had just turned 27-years-old and was in the middle of an existential crisis. “Holy shit I’m almost 30! What the fuck is my life?” Usain Bolted around my brain daily. I was restless, scared and weary. That’s when I stumbled across Flourish & A Spoil. It’s weird, Nathan introduced me to them about a year ago, but I never connected. Well, this October, in the midst of a breakdown, I stumbled back across Flourish & A Spoil and for the first time in a long time, I felt at ease. What stood out to me most about this album was how they captured that dulling unease in the pit of my stomach that comes with trying to “make it,” but they didn’t stew in it. It may be covered by a layer of dirt and flannel, but their songwriting is immaculate. “Peaches” in particular hinted at something I was feeling but couldn’t put into words:
"I'm young but I can't shake this feeling all my days are dwindling / That deep beneath facades and smiles is nothing much to hold / And when we used to run my eyes would fill with all that's glittering / But deep beneath this shimmer I feel nothing may be gold"
The lyrics aren't the most uplifting, but the mood is never victim to the same gloom. In the past, alt-rock/folk material like this has never really kept me entertained. To me, a soul-sampling loving hip-hop head, it’s for lack of a better word, dull. Maybe minimalist is better. It doesn't keep my focus. But the Districts are anything but dull. Their music ebbs and flows, changes, and grows, but still jives with the energy and content. Case in point, “Young Blood.” The 8-minute long effort is a behemoth. It’s an experience you simply have to feel for yourself.
Oh, I also got to see them live and it was one of the best shows I have seen...ever. This album may not win, but there was not a more meaningful album to me this year; including rap.
Suggested Reading:First Listen: The Districts - A Flourish and a Spoil (via NPR)
Suggested Listening: “4th & Roebling,” “Chlorine” and “Young Blood”
Son Little - Son Little
Some albums hit you immediately with the force of a thousand hungry Rick Rosses, others kill you slowly. Son Little’s self-titled project is the latter. Just the other day, as I was listening to the album for the second time in a row while sitting in traffic, singing along with every song, it hit me. Ever since the album dropped, I haven't really listened to anything else. This album is the epitome of a slow burn. Son Little never rests; the project is a sinuous watershed that drips a breadth of unique sounds, styles and emotions, yet manages to all come together to form a strangely engrossing, cohesive listen. Like a moth to a light, you can’t help but be drawn in, and the more murky things get, the more you are intrigued.
Nathan touched on it in our Top Prospect profile, but it’s impossible to place Son Little in one genre. His drums remind me of hip-hop one moment than a tribal ritual the next. At times he’s bluesy rock (“The River”), at times he’s traditional soul (“Lay Me Down”), but others other times he sounds more like The Weekend covered in mud and haunted by ghosts (“I’m Gone”) or Sting if he was a cowboy from the future ("Nice Dreams"). The more I get to know the album the more I realize what a mystery it is, but that only adds to the appeal. I've listened so much to figure out just what it was, but that mystery never seems to get solved, and in the end that’s the magic that makes this album so uniquely special.
Son Little is one hell of an artist. Like poison, this album will course through your bloodstream and tug at your insides, before you know it you are consumed. Sometimes the slow burns end up being more caustic; it wouldn't surprise me at all if this album was still in heavy rotation this time next year.
Okay, so now it’s time to pick a winner.
Do I have to? I mean all of these albums hold a special place in my heart. I might still be moping around if it weren’t for The Districts, and Son Little gets me through traffic jams. How can I pick?
Fine. I’ll pick. Twist my arm why don’t you. My head says Alabama Shakes. The album was masterfully assembled and its popularity goes to show that they really hit the nail on the head. Still, my gut keeps saying Son Little.
Head or heart? Hmmmm.
Fuck it. I’m going heart. I’m picking Son Little’s self-titled album as my Non Hip-Hop Album of the Year. It’s such a unique, interesting project, so radically different from anything I've heard recently, it’s hard to pick against it. I’m just now starting to realize how much I really love this album, how evergreen it really is. It’s yet to lose that pop. When I listen, I get the sense I'm listening to an album that will be in my daily life for a long long time. I don’t get that feeling often but when I do it’s usually right. I’m picking Son Little’s album not just for 2015 but for the years (and listens) to come.
Regardless, there are no winners or losers here, only great music, and it's never too late to start listening. Enjoy...
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is College Dropout but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]